I am offended by people who are offended! It’s like how I am intolerant of people who are intolerant. It’s a challenge. Somehow I have to ignore the self-referential self loathing, but life is paradoxical and ironical, and I’ve always embraced both (and chaos) as personal philosophies.
Irony and paradox aside the whole idea of being offended has become an aspect of society today. We’ve turned it into a cottage industry, and both sides of politics have heavy weaponized it into a WMD.
The problem is often the legitimacy of being offended. When is it right to take offense, and when might the real issue be our own perceptions (and we should just STFU).
Societies can have very selective responses to people being offended.
As a general rule, offenses by those in power are down-played (if not entirely disregarded), while the slights of the powerless are magnified.
(We saw this play out in the Kavanaugh hearings. His opening statement was so offensive to the body politic it should have disqualified him for a seat on the SCOTUS. At the least, it should have been worthy of far more concern than it got.)
Outside that power dynamic, for us regular folks, modern culture often seems to grant primacy to offense. If a person is offended, then there must be a valid reason for it, and we tend to assume the reason is legitimate.
Further, we view being offended by something as we might view a health risk: a detriment to be avoided (by fiat, if necessary).
As Stephen Fry put it:
Another way to put it is that announcing “I’m offended!” is essentially telling the world that you can’t control your emotions, so everyone else should help do it for you.
At the same time, there do seem legitimate reasons for being offended: I’m highly offended by misogyny and racism, and nearly as highly by general ignorance and stupidity.
As are many, and it’s entirely legit. If anything, it is wrong to not be offended by these things.
Then consider those being offended by what people wear, or by the casting of a TV or movie character, or people saying “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas!”
As a middle ground, perhaps consider being offended by someone burning the flag or taking a knee during the National Anthem. Or by a sports team keeping a historically problematic name (such as “Indians” or “Redskins”). Consider also the offense taken to symbols from the Confederacy.
Clearly there is a spectrum of things that cause offense, so it seems there should be a spectrum of being offended.
I see a lot of ways to categorize being offended, but the crucial one to me has (obviously) to do with the objective legitimacy of the offense.
It is reasonable to be offended by things we can comfortably define as morally wrong, that are evil or malicious. (The trick — as always — is deciding what is morally wrong.)
Hanlon’s Razor offers something of a clue: “Never attribute to malice what can be explained by incompetence.” We should try to not be offended by someone’s ignorance or thoughtlessness.
It might also seem reasonable to categorize offense based on what people do versus what they say. Except…
Remember Sticks and Stones? And the idea that words could never hurt you?
That’s not entirely true, of course, but there is important truth in it. Even the most hateful words can’t directly “break your bones.” (But they can incite people to do it!)
Our principle of free speech is based on the physical harmlessness of words, but at the same time we also believe that “words can move mountains” (and that you can’t yell “Fire!” in a crowd).
In point of fact, it’s the ideas that move mountains, just as it’s the ideas behind words that are not physically harmless.
A key component of malice is intent — the idea of doing harm.
Ideally, we should not be offended by those who mean no harm.
The idea of doing no harm is what’s behind the idea of being Politically Correct, and as with many good ideas, “being PC” sometimes loses sight of its true goals and becomes a weapon one side uses against another.
Which causes well-earned disdain for “being PC” that becomes a counter-weapon against legitimate sensitivity (the accusation, “Oh, you’re just being PC” implying illegitimacy).
(This is why humans can’t have anything good.)
I think the legitimacy we grant offense is what turns the good idea of being aware of, and sensitive to, other people into a numbing blanket that makes a mockery of the idea.
We absolutely should try to be sensitive to the feelings of others, but we need some sort of smell test for when it goes too far.
We probably need to just lighten up a bit. Having hair-trigger sensitivity results in the same thing viewed differently by different groups.
For instance, one group finds “Happy Holidays!“ inclusive, serviceable, and (this is the important part) preferable to the idea of offending those who don’t celebrate Christmas.
Another group is offended people aren’t saying “Merry Christmas!“ because it removes Christ from the holiday celebrating His (official, but not actual) birth.
These ideas become weaponized in a supposed “War On Christmas.”
Pity we can’t, you know, in the spirit of Christmas, just agree to be generous and let people say “Merry Christmas!“ if they want without it being an attack on non-Christians, and to say “Happy Holidays!“ if they want without it being an attack on Christians.
(No one is attacking anyone, okay?)
Because this “War On Christmas” is either absurd or was lost long ago.
On the one hand, the Christmas stuff — lots and lots of Christmas stuff — comes out earlier every year. Unmistakable Christmas now starts before Thanksgiving, and it’s only a matter of time before it starts before Halloween. (And then what, Fourth of July?)
On the other hand, who celebrates actual Christmas anymore? Who remembers what it supposedly means? It is pretty much already back to being the pagan Solistice holiday it started as. After all, the season starts with something called “Black Friday.”
Another example is football players taking a knee during the National Anthem.
This, too, has been weaponized by politics. The emotions people have towards their flag is leveraged in what is ultimately a racist way. (See Take A Knee)
As a former hippie and current libertarian, does seeing someone burn the flag of the USA nevertheless still manage to tweak a little something in my gut? Yes, it definitely does. Appropriate displays tweak it the other way (the good way). Feelings for our flag are strong!
But my main response to seeing someone burn the flag (because I’m not slave to my emotions) is to think: “What a jackass!” And shake my head.
There’s no harm done (my country is way stronger than that), and it probably makes the jackass feel better. More importantly, maybe the jackass has a point I should listen to. Maybe he’s trying to get my attention.
Which is what’s happening with football players, and we should definitely listen to the point they’re making.
Even if you think they’re being a jackass.
(Both football and the country can take it. At least, both of them claim they’re pretty tough…)
On a more serious level, symbols from the (American Civil War) Confederacy also divide people.
One group sees them as emblematic of slavery, another seems them as representing its cultural past. (Some in the latter group are aware of the problems of the past, but decouple them from a nostalgic view.)
While the moral view seems clear, this is a more complicated issue because so many do have a nostalgic view or are willing to defend the past as is. (A similar issue exists with sports team names.)
Social change is hard, and about the only way it works is through the young. Provide the means for new generations to make better choices, and society can move forward.
In the end, I wish we could learn to think twice about this being offended business. Some of it certainly is appropriate, but don’t we go too far, like, all the time?
As is oft said, one of the rights you don’t have is the right to never be offended. Equally oft pointed out is that, in a truly free society, it’s damn near guaranteed that you will be offended by someone.
Try to see it as the spice, the stuff that makes life interesting.
Or just lighten up. Fight for things that matter.
Stay unoffended, my friends!
December 7th, 2018 at 4:52 pm
The players kneeling thing is a particularly stark example. If the players had started kneeling and just said that was how they wanted to show respect, people would have thought it odd, but not particularly cared. But people get offended specifically because of the sentiment the act symbolizes, and that the players have the gall to display it in front of them.
The confederate statues and flags are another one. Most of these symbols were actually formed during the Jim Crow or Civil Rights eras, *not* the Civil War era. I know a lot of people who think those that want the symbols removed are being overly sensitive. They say this without a hint of irony at the fact that they themselves are getting upset about the removal of said symbols.
The offence bandwagons that often form in social media particularly anger me, because people are often just joining in on the pile-on without knowing the facts.
A lot of taking offense strikes me as virtue signalling. Contrary to what some conservatives claim, this isn’t only a liberal thing. Both sides do it, although the specific virtues being signaled vary. I personally find it annoying no matter which direction it comes from.
December 8th, 2018 at 12:23 pm
“If the players had started kneeling and just said that was how they wanted to show respect,”
That’s a good point. Kneeling is generally seen as a sign of respect, isn’t it. You kneel before Kings and Queens (or God). The way it’s been weaponized really does point out what the real objection is.
I don’t know if you followed the link to my older post, but a key point in that one came from a Facebook post I’d seen repeated in an online article. It’s good enough to bear repeating here:
Our inability to see past mere paint jobs is one of the biggest social sticks in my mental craw. If we can’t see past something as trivial and meaningless as that, how will ever get past actual differences, like gender? We seem to have so far to go.
“Most of these symbols were actually formed during the Jim Crow or Civil Rights eras, *not* the Civil War era.”
I did not realize that. It drove me to Wikipedia to learn more. (Thanks! 🙂 )
I really ought to not have had to look this up, but the Civil War was 1861–1865. (Maybe actually writing and discussing it here will help me remember it better.) The Confederacy existed on those same dates, which makes sense, but I didn’t realize they exactly the same.
I also learned that “Jim Crow” as a pejorative term goes all the way back to 1832, but Wiki says “Jim Crow Law” doesn’t appear until 1892. Discriminatory laws in the former Confederate States began in 1865, though, immediately after the war.
And Civil Rights were in high gear in 1965, which means it was 100 years of Jim Crow Crap.
(And the reaction to Obama showed we still have a long way to go. The backsliding recently sickens me.)
I suppose the Confederate flag and actual generals or soldiers who fought in the Civil War would be genuine symbols, but I can see there being a huge mythology created after the fact. As one of my favorite quotes goes, “When the legend becomes fact… print the legend.”
On that account, maybe it doesn’t matter that much if the symbols are genuinely from the era or fabricated after? If both sides see them as representing the era, maybe it’s as if they were legitimate? (Heh. Hardly the first or last time humans have warred over made up stuff.)
December 8th, 2018 at 12:32 pm
You raised three interesting but separate threads of thought, so I’m splitting my replies into three. Plus it avoids my usual long-winded mega-comments (which never seem that long when I’m writing them).
“The offence bandwagons that often form in social media particularly anger me, because people are often just joining in on the pile-on without knowing the facts.”
Very true. And not just the bandwagon without knowing, but social media allows fringe types to find strength in numbers. Usually the fringe is diluted and weak, but social media has amplified its voice.
Conversely, it has the odd effect of reducing the majority voice. The ‘two talking head’ segments tend to level arguments by giving each equal time and taking what is said as opinion as a kind of truth. We end up with two apparent “truths” but one is sensible and rational and the other is bat poop bonkers.
Websites all look the same on some level; they’re just a bunch of pages. I have a personal website with many thousands of pages, and I’m just one guy with some hobbies. People who want to establish a presence on the web can do so easily, so any website can look pro.
Likewise YouTube channels or any account on any platform. Could be the world’s greatest, wisest philosopher, could be a nutball, could be a hater.
(One of my favorite tunes is Bruce Cockburn’s Burden of the Angel/Beast: “Could be the pusher, Could be the priest. Always ourselves we love the least. That’s the burden of the angel/beast.” The tune has great lyrics in general!)
And on top of all that, as you say, people join in with no real clue what they’re buying into.
Or they do and don’t care. I wrote a post recently about how we love shit-covered raisins because we like the raisins so much.
December 8th, 2018 at 12:40 pm
“A lot of taking offense strikes me as virtue signalling.”
This isn’t something I’ve ever thought about!
Do you mean false signalling — pretending to have the virtue — or, for lack of a better term, “identity” signalling — saying who you are as a signal to friends or foes?
Either way, do you mean conscious or unconscious?
I can certainly see it wouldn’t be exclusive to any party or point of view.
If you find it annoying, I’m guessing we’re talking about conscious false signalling, which I agree is annoying. Or worse. I’m not fond of hypocrites; it’s a form of lying, which I abhor.
The flip side might be the idea of standing up for values one believes in, but I doubt that’s the sort of thing you mean.
December 8th, 2018 at 2:21 pm
Good question. The social status calculation is definitely not always conscious, and introspecting carefully about it, I think I’m annoyed even when it is unconscious, because it seems to denote a lack of self awareness or social concern. Such a lack might be amusing or pitiable if it didn’t sometimes lead to intense suffering for the targets of the outrage.
I do agree that sometimes people have genuine moral outrage, and it’s not always evident whether we’re seeing grandstanding or the real thing. It’s a lot easier when the outraged person had no way to see the social benefits to themselves, or when they actually pay a social cost for the outrage. The fact that that is rare is what makes me think most of it is grandstanding.
But maybe I’ve just gotten too cynical and jaded in my old age. 🙂
December 9th, 2018 at 11:46 am
“I think I’m annoyed even when it is unconscious, because it seems to denote a lack of self awareness or social concern.”
So, conscious pretenders and unconscious posturers. With ya on being annoyed by both, although I’d be inclined towards giving the posturers a little more slack for lacking intent, which looms large to me. It even flirts a bit with Hanlon’s Razor, differentiating between malice and incompetence.
That said, I can be guilty of lumping them together. I, too, condemn lack of self- and social-awareness. (Feels like not trying, not participating, being self-centered.) I try to remember this xkcd cartoon as a personal reminder, when it comes to ignorance. (I’m not always successful, but it’s a goal.)
But the flip side is like driving as car. If one drives, one is expected to know the road rules and protocols. Being lenient about ignorance here leads to death. So there’s certainly a spectrum, and doesn’t it seem like social interaction is one of those important things.
So, yeah, definitely with ya on the annoyance.
“I do agree that sometimes people have genuine moral outrage, and it’s not always evident whether we’re seeing grandstanding or the real thing.”
True, and it weirdly works the other way around. The moral outrage black people have over Black Lives Matter issues, and the moral outrage women have over Me Too issues, obviously is clearly justified.
Meanwhile, I’ve seen (well-meaning) “crusaders” adopt platforms with no real connection over perceived moral outrage, but their behavior always had a stink to it, and I think you put a good name to that stink with “virtue signaling.” The issue may be valid, their outrage might even be valid on some level, but their inner motivation is what seems suspect to me.
Do you watch The Good Place? Given your interest in philosophy, I can’t imagine you’re not. A key element of this third season (and one mentioned before) is the idea that you can’t earn “goodness points” by doing good for the sake of earning those points. Your motivation has to be pure.
Of course, those who jump on a bandwagon that doesn’t affect them with conscious intent to grandstand — lots of actors and Hollywood types I could mention — that’s pretty repulsive to me.
“But maybe I’ve just gotten too cynical and jaded in my old age.”
Heh. I’ll see your jaded cynicism and raise you a growing despair the human race will ever amount to anything! 😮
December 9th, 2018 at 1:04 pm
I actually had never heard of The Good Place until now. Interesting. Thank you! I’ll check it out.
December 9th, 2018 at 1:09 pm
It’s one of the best half-hour sitcoms I’ve ever seen. Talk about taking you someplace new!
Be sure you avoid reading or hearing anything about it until you watch the first season! HUGE twist in the last episode! (But clues if you’ve paid attention.)
August 12th, 2022 at 7:12 am
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